Omaha's Commercial Recycling Changes Explained


Updated: June 18, 2019

As reported in the Omaha World Herald & industry trade site Waste Dive, commercial entities in Omaha that want to continue a robust recycling program should convert from what’s called single-stream recycling to dual-stream recycling, and ensure that their haulers are taking materials to First Star and/or International Paper.

The change comes in response to the Omaha area’s top materials recovery facility (aka MRF) First Star Recycling’s protocol. Note: this does not effect residential.

More on who First Star is, and why this occurred below, but first ...


Here’s a quick list of changes:

  • Placing your recyclables in plastic bags inside your collection dumpster or tote is no longer accepted. While your hauler may still pick it up in that form, encasing your recyclables inside plastic bags greatly decreases its ability to be recycled. The one exception to this are EnergyBag’s.

  • Commercial clients must now separate recyclables into two categories:

    • 1. Dry and Clean Cardboard (Hillside can compost the wet stuff).

    • 2. Dry and Clean Paper (like office paper, newspaper, magazines aka non-food related paper, which we can compost) + Empty and Clean Containers (like aluminum/tin/steel cans, and plastics #1, 2, 5) + soft plastics bagged up in EnergyBag’s.

  • If you're a large enough organization, single-stream may still be an option if you pass an audit inspection by First Star.

  • If you’re a small enough organization that produces a small amount of cardboard, you too may also be considered viable for single-stream.

To dive deeper in what types of materials are accepted, check out First Star's dual-stream article


But wait! Why all the changes?

The International Influence

There’s been an international shake-up in the recycling industry. We won’t bore you with the complexities of turning your recycled materials into reusable commodities, but the short of it is: China stopped taking the world’s recycled materials, and the nation-wide industry has been scrambling to make changes as commodity prices have fallen.

Here’s the hard truth: Our recycling industry has had an unhealthy, codependent relationship with China for a long time. America has been sending them really crappy material with loads of contamination for years. Because China took it, haulers, municipalities, and material recycling facilities didn’t bother to fix this one big problem: most people recycle the wrong way

But now that China and other international markets aren’t accepting our crummy recycled materials, we’re faced with fixing our nation’s system.


Single-Stream Recycling Explained

Single-stream recycling is the quite frankly a lazy way to recycle, and it’s the system that Omaha has spoiled us with for years. It means that you and I have been able to put all recyclable materials into the same place.

It’s simple, which means more folks are likely to engage with it, but it’s highly flawed, because if one bad apple puts half a can of soda into a bin, then all the paper you recycled gets soaked and all the plastics now have a sticky residue. This is called contamination, and if a load of recycled materials is too contaminated, then materials may go to the landfill.


Surprise! (Not all recycled materials get recycled).

Another hard truth: Regardless of current circumstances, recycling is inherently a flawed system. For example, just because a water bottle gets placed inside a recycling container doesn’t guarantee that it actually gets recycled. In reality, way more “recycled” materials end up in the landfill than you’d think, and it’s always been that way.

Here are the contributing factors:

  1. People contaminating the stream with food, liquid and other non-recyclable materials

  2. Waste haulers taking materials to inadequate MRF’s

  3. Lack of manufacturers that want to purchase recycled materials at a profitable price

To use a metaphor, recycling isn’t a black or white process, it’s varying shades of grey. For example, by recycling the right materials, working with the right hauler/MRF, and with favorable market conditions — you’re materials have a higher probability of actually getting recycled. But if any one of these conditions isn’t optimal, then materials may end up in the landfill.

But we’re committed to educating you and providing a system that gives your materials the best chance of actually getting recycled.

Places us haulers can take your recycled materials …

To be clear, not all haulers take commercial recycling materials to the same place. Based on where it goes, the probability of getting it recycled changes. Here are the options in Omaha:

NebraskaLand = 👎

As Verdis Group pointed out in their analysis in 2018, NebraskaLand Recycling still accepts single-stream. But due to a lack of sorting infrastructure & connections to commodities markets, we do not send materials to NebraskaLand, as we have deemed their process for recovery inadequate for what our customers expect.

We have also received reports that they are not sending EnergyBag’s to First Star, which is the only area facility that can process that material.

International Paper = 👍

International Paper has a facility in North Omaha. While they accept some types of plastic & metal (usually isolated and in high volumes), their speciality is in recycling fibers like paper and cardboard. After meeting with them, touring their facility, and researching the company, they have met our requirements and we currently work with International Paper.

We take portions of our cardboard-only pickup routes to their facility. From there, they send cardboard to regional paper mills to be reused in other products.

First Star Recycling = 👍👍

Per our research and extensive experience, First Star is our primary destination for recycled materials due to their scale of collection infrastructure and connections to commodity markets. As our chosen and trusted MRF, First Star Recycling has set the current requirements for dual-stream commercial recycling. 

Because Omaha is landlocked, First Star has established many regional connections to commodity buyers that have helped to ensure materials are getting recycled, despite the major shifts in the international market.


So how do you make the change?

Here are your next steps:

  1. Contact your hauler and see if they offer dual-stream recycling in tandem with taking your materials to First Star and/or International Paper. If not, we do.

  2. Instead of one container, set-up two blue containers to collect your materials in-house. Note: Blue is the nationally agreed-upon color for recycling, not green. Recycle Across America is the best resource for signage (although we have some for customers), and Larsen Supply Co. in Council Bluffs stocks a variety of containers.

  3. For your hauler to transport the material properly, they will provide you with two dumpsters or totes for separation.

  4. Instead of one pickup, your hauler will do two separate pickups.

While this does entail more work and resources on everyone’s behalf, this is the best way to treat your recycling materials at this time, and provides an opportunity for people to learn how to recycle the right way.

Need help?

More than just hauling away your waste, Hillside Solutions is committed to helping our partners meet their sustainability goals. That means we'll provide guidance on how to navigate this new world and consultation on how to incorporate these practices into your office, school, or church.

And BTW: While you're reassessing how to incorporate dual-stream, now is a great time to also consider composting. We'll help get you there.

Contact our team, and let's get started! 


Lots of love,

from your Sustainability Consultant team at Hillside Solutions

Brent Crampton